Dolores River film explores water conflicts common in West

Competing demands on waterway with only so much to give

By Jonathan Romeo Durango Herald staff writer

A new documentary slated for a January release lays bare the rigid conflicts over water use along the drought-stricken Dolores River, as irrigators, rafters and others strive for some sort of balance.

McPhee Reservoir was created with the damming of the Dolores River in the late 1980s. The Dolores Project Plan allocated water to irrigate 70,000 acres of arid land and for communities, including the city of Cortez and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

About a year ago, Dolores River Boating Advocates received a grant from Patagonia to create a film about the spectrum of issues that surround the Dolores River.

River filmmakers Rig to Flip won the bid and spent more than 50 days filming this summer. Now in post-production, project director Cody Perry said the documentary – “River of Sorrows: The Dolores River Project” – will premiere in Dolores on Jan. 15.

“The Dolores River represents some of the most important issues facing communities throughout the West,” Perry said. “It’s really a case study on the dangers of a transbasin diversion.”

The Dolores River was dammed in the late 1980s, effectively forming McPhee Reservoir, and various stakeholders drafted the Dolores Project Plan, which set out to secure water supplies – in years past water flows would either run dry or dangerously low because of overuse.

Most of the water was allocated to irrigate more than 70,000 acres of otherwise arid land, allowing farmers to extend the planting season through September. However, the top priority on the list was communities outside the river’s basin reliant on the water for domestic purposes: namely, the city of Cortez and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

When all was said and done, annual downstream releases of the Dolores were more than cut in half. Add that to nearly two decades of drought in the Colorado River basin, and it’s no wonder tensions have arisen over water rights.

Critics of the Dolores Project, namely boaters, say the plan leaves little room for fisheries and recreation to thrive on the river. Though those two uses are part of the plan, high levels of water are released only in years of excess, which have become increasingly rare.

“My approach to managing the district is that all of these things matter,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “Providing water to farms is highly critical to those families and the local economy, and providing water to the community is obviously very important.

“But we are equally obligated by law to take care of the fishery, and provide boating days,” he said. “I take those obligations as seriously as the others.”

Lee-Ann Hill, program coordinator for the Dolores River Boating Advocates, said because water managers allocate only a few days a year to large releases, it’s difficult to plan trips in advance and sustain a livelihood.

“If I speak with commercial boaters that used to use the river, they feel at the bottom of the totem pole with their livelihood,” Hill said. “I understand other livelihoods depend on the river, and we really strive to work together with all the water users to find a sweet spot where we can all enjoy and use the water.”

Hill said she wanted to approach these sensitive issues, through different perspectives, to transcend emotions and get to a bigger question: How can water in the basin be used more effectively?

“We wanted to portray the matrix,” she said. “Every user has an idea that’s probably through the lens of their dominant use. But at the end of the day, we need to use this source together.”

And Hill, who has rafted the Dolores River in good years, can’t express enough to those who have never had the chance how important it is to reopen the lower portions of the river.

“It’s magical,” she said. “It’s been compared to other legendary rivers and canyons, like the Grand Canyon and Salmon River, and it’s true. Passing through it is a really different experience. It just resonates.”

Perry acknowledged that in making a film as an avid rafter, backed by a boating advocate group, it was important to let the people invested in the Dolores River from all sides tell the story.

“We don’t really have an agenda, or believe in that kind of thing,” he said. “If anything, it’s the people telling the story. The story exists out there will all these constituents, and we’re really guided by a single question: What do we stand to inherit here?”

Preston said when an outsider comes in and puts a spotlight on something as sensitive as the Dolores River, it can go either way: The film can needlessly stir up emotions, or be a useful tool for communication and education.

“If all goes well, then you move beyond stereotyping,” Preston said. “But when you get to the human side of it, it rounds out your perspective. It’s real people who have a real interest that will best be met if they understand and communicate with each other.”

The filmmakers are now asking for donations through an IndieGoGo page for the final editing costs associated with the documentary. Perry said he plans to show the film throughout the region and, he hopes, beyond.

“We’ve uncovered the type of narrative tension that deserves an audience that is perhaps international,” he said. “At the very least, the American public ought to be told.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect date for the film premiere.

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